Sunday, November 15, 2009

West Point on the East Side

Three years ago today, an article that I wrote was published in the now-defunct New York Sun. The article describes our family's first close encounter with the U.S. military, plus a bit of personal reflection on the liberal baby-boomer's take on the military. I beg the reader's indulgence as I reprint it here in its entirety. The readers who responded to the article provide the necessary second half to what I wrote. You can read those responses on the link which is still up.

West Point on East Side
By AMY DE ROSA November 15, 2006

With the resignation of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, a possible new direction for the war in Iraq, and John Kerry's recent "botched joke" about our enlisted personnel, I've been reminded that skepticism toward the military is not uncommon in our country. New York City is no exception to that sentiment as I've noticed lately while thinking about the military a bit more than usual.

Last year, our son applied and was offered admission to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Such a choice was not expected in our family, and it was all but unheard of at our private New York City high school. However, with the help of the college counselor, and, actually, the enthusiastic support of our son's peers, he submitted his application.

Throughout the process, my husband and I heard a range of reactions from our own friends. To be sure, there were those who expressed heartfelt support. But we were also met with confused looks and annoyed tones that seemed to belie attempts to figure out whether we were misguided or just crazy.

It was assumed that, as his mother, I did not approve of the idea, and both my husband and I were sternly warned to avoid all things related to the military. We heard congratulatory words immediately followed by lectures about the evils of war. Mere mention of the words "military academy" brought forth criticism of American involvement in Iraq and the hate-Bush rhetoric that is so predictable in Manhattan. We received reminders that now is not the time to attend a military academy because (as if we didn't know) there is a war going on. Indignant parents reacted as if my husband and I had crossed a forbidden line by allowing our son to apply and go to West Point. Several adamantly declared that if their son or daughter ever got the idea to apply to a military academy, it would be, in these parents' own words, "over my dead body." And, one parent added angrily, only 17-year-olds are "stupid" enough to consider the military as an option.

Antipathy toward the military is often found among people who claim to support our troops but not the war in Iraq. They are sometimes the same people who believe that it is possible to negotiate with terrorists. They are grown adults, friends, and neighbors of mine, who for the past six years have felt entitled to engage in schoolyard name-calling because President Bush challenges the ideology they espouse. They are the "enlightened" baby boomers, the ones who know better and more than anyone else. Along with my baby-boomer peers, I,too, protested the Vietnam War, frowned on patriotism, and scorned the military. But with age, experience, and children, I am beginning to learn that I have been miserably mistaken about some of my long-held beliefs, including my ideas about the military.

As a still-uninitiated parent of a West Point plebe, I am more than a little in awe of what the U.S. Army has done with over a thousand 18-year-olds fresh out of high school. In six weeks of basic training, our son, along with other new cadets, was challenged in ways I could never have foreseen. He learned how to salute, stand at attention, and march in step with his company. He learned how to be on time. He was introduced to M-16s, hand grenades, tactical marches, and long days that began at 5 a.m. He continues to learn what it is to follow orders down to the most seemingly inconsequential detail.

I had imagined the Army to be little more than a machine churning out fighters, but I'm now more inclined to think of the Army as the final word on team building, a think tank devoted to training our country's soldiers and officers. I imagined military academies to be filled with dull cookie-cutter types in uniform but instead have found dynamic, articulate, and thoughtful individuals. At West Point, these individuals are energized about educating young men and women, our sons and daughters, to be "leaders of character." Increasingly, I see military life as for neither the faint-hearted nor the weak. It is a life of sacrifice, service, and commitment.

Selfless commitment, the willingness to sacrifice, and the decision to serve are not popular notions in our culture today, nor are they ideas that we baby-boomer parents instill in our children. For the most part, my generation grew up in a culture filled with cynical disregard for such lofty concepts as duty, valor, and steadfastness. Yet these are qualities that our military must embrace in order to prevail. They are ideals that as a country we must support if our military is to be successful. We may pay lip service to supporting the troops, but how much do we respect them, and how well do we understand their job, especially now during a time of war?

Questions about our country's military will most likely continue to figure in our future as America confronts terrorism. All of us, fellow New Yorkers and baby boomers included, could use a fresh perspective and take an objective look at what our military actually does and who our servicemen really are. The approaching Thanksgiving season also presents us with a good opportunity to respectfully recognize and thank our military personnel, especially those men and women who are fighting in the war on terror, for their commitment, their sacrifice, and their service to each of us and to our country.

Mrs. De Rosa lives in Manhattan with her family and is a West Point parent, class of 2010.

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